Resurging Islamists Playing Savior of Democracy in Bangladesh


Mohammad Pervez Bilgrami

Elections in Bangladesh have of late become something synonymous to an Orwellian drama. The 10th General elections held on the 5th of January this year was no exception, as the government orchestrated a violence-ridden saga where the Election Commission had arranged for voting only in 147 constituencies out of a total of 300. The rest of the 153 constituencies were uncontested due to the absence of any opposition candidate. The opposition, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its main ally, the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, had boycotted the elections on grounds that they could neither be fair nor free under a partisan government such as the one led by the Awami League. It had an extremely shocking record of gross violations of human rights, widely rampant corruptions of varying sorts and an arbitrary and biased rule of law which was primarily aimed at silencing the opposition activists and curbing the dissenting voices in the media.

Less than 2 months after the so-called national elections, the BNP-led alliance contested in the fourth nationwide upazila (sub-district) elections where the BNP-Jamaat backed chairman candidates showed a grand performance. The upazila election results show, among other things, a resurgence of the popularity of the major Islamist party, the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, challenging the status quo of the widely hyped perception that the Jamaat is universally hated by the citizens of Bangladesh and no one can possibly support it. So far elections in 295 upazila parishads (sub-district councils) have been held in three out of a total of five phases. Among the 224 candidates backed by BNP for the office of upazila chairman, 123 have won. Among the 295 fielded by Awami League for the office, 117 have been elected. Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami put forward 78 upazila chairman candidates of whom 29 have won. The Jatiya Party, which was the main alliance of the ruling party in joining the controversial national election, has won only in one upazila till date. The scenario for the vice chairman seats projects a similar picture, where BNP bagged 221, Awami League 118 and Jamaat won 103 out of the 582 vice-chairman seats contended for by the major parties.

Thus, the resurgence of the Jamaat, be it as a consequence of the will of the people, has not been viewed with kindness by the Awami League administration. In a programme held in the capital on the 20th of February this year, the prominent leftist politician and incumbent minister for information, Hasanul Haque Inu, while speaking with the media, expressed his disappointment and dismay over the fact that people had voted for the Jamaat-e-Islami in such a big way. On the other hand, Sajeeb Wazed Joy, the son of the incumbent Prime Minister, at a party program in Rangpur on 17th March, expressed his bewilderment while saying that the victory of Jamaat in such large numbers was a matter of shame for them, since he thought that the party had been judicially banned from participation in any polls. Obviously, the Awami League has miserably failed to understand the popular mood of the people, which are clearly against the incumbent ruling party, and which has been ruling the country clandestinely without any meaningful popular support for either its policies or actions.

Despite the reiteration of such fascist comments at various levels in the current administration, the prominent civil rights and advocacy groups have pointed out otherwise, alluding to widespread elections irregularities on the part of the government. Dr. Badiul Alam Majumdar, the Secretary of SUJON (Sushashoner Jonno Nagorik/Citizens for Good Governance), while expressing his reaction over the polls, told the weekly magazine the PROBE, “Other than in the first phase, there has been extreme violence and chaos in the upazila elections. The environment was not conducive to credible elections. The Election Commission has been a failure in this connection. If the election had been free and fair, the results would have been different.”

A close observation of the polls reveals that the successes of the BNP-Jamaat candidates were indirectly proportional to the extent of violence and electoral irregularities as perpetrated by the state machinery. Interestingly, the candidates belonging to the Awami League won almost all the seats where there had been clear evidence of blatant vote rigging and violence. Wherever the first phase was peaceful, BNP-Jamaat bagged the maximum seats, a whopping 58 seats to AL’s 34 seats. This deficit was overturned during the 3rd phase where the AL bagged 37 seats to BNP-Jamaat’s 34 seats. It is worth mentioning that the third phase of the upazila election was marred by widespread irregularities, forcible takeover of voting centres, casting false votes and violence. Two died during the election violence and one more was shot dead by the police. Moreover, the Election Working Group, a platform of 29 civil society organizations, called the third phase of the upazila polls as not “free and fair”. Their observation reveals some 258 incidents of violence in 54 upazilas and at least 77 polling agents having been driven away from voting centres in 22 upazilas. 90 of their observers were barred from observing the vote count. Thus, one may translate the above to the 4th and 5th phases, and the foreseeable situation is indeed worrying.

Analysts have put down the exemplary performance of the Jamaat, which many had claimed before the polls to be highly unpopular, more to its root level organizational prowess and popularity than to the disorganization and disunity within archrival Awami League. This was evident from the victory by a huge margin of votes where Jamaat had defeated their AL rivals, and defeat by small margins to where they have lost to the AL. The upazila elections have also shattered the myths of Jamaat being misogynist and against women’s suffrage, as the Jamaat- backed female vice chairman won in 10 posts in the latest phase of the upazila polls alone. Warhana Ahmed Mala, an elected Jamaat female vice Chairman of Adamdighi upazila, while recounting her experience of being elected to the post for the second time, said, “People think Jamaat is misogynist and backward looking. It is not true. There is an area in my upazila where about 37 % voters are from the minority Hindu community. I was elected by a huge vote margin there too. I am grateful to my voters.” It is worth mentioning here that Masud Bin Sayedee, son of popular Islamic personality Allama Delwar Hossain Sayedee, who was convicted for war crimes during the tenure of the present government, has won the chairman position from Zianagar upazila constituency with huge margin.

These developments come at a time when Awami League supporters, both on the ground and in the media, have been demanding a complete ban of Jamaat as a political party in the wake of a controversial decision by Bangladesh’s High Court on 1st August, 2013 which had cancelled Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami’s political registration on grounds that the party’s charter, by acknowledging the absolute power of God, breached Bangladesh’s 1972 secular constitution, which upholds the sovereignty and absolute power of the people of Bangladesh. The issue of the banning of the Jamaat was brought again to the fore when Liberation War Affairs Minister AKM Mozammel Huq on the 14th of March,2014 said that the government would take initiatives to ban Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami by June this year. The performance by Jamaat in the upazila polls however, compounds the need to revisit this stance and question the motives of a state that purports to set right the perceived historical wrongs through widespread clampdown on what is effectively the actual bastion of opposition in the country. In the present scenario, the most crucial question arising is as to how we can profess to support democracy while still wanting to ban a party that can pull such a high level of public support? This would amount to sheer hypocrisy. It is now to be seen, rather most curiously, how the countries making great hype in favor of democracy react to the situation fast emerging in Bangladesh. Will they repeat the tragic aftermath of Egypt’s Arab Spring in Bangladesh too, simply because the majority of this country have decided to support the Islamic party and its allies as against the secular minded but unpopular Awami League?

The time is not far off when the AL will have to realize its fast shrinking support base in the masses who see the country’s future in the opposition parties where Bangladesh Jamat-i-Islami has a vital role to play, and which is definitely in expansion mode, a factor which has started afflicting the ruling AL alarmingly.